Archive for July, 2009

Double vision

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

Several years after its cultural moment, I’m finally watching “Cloverfield”. It’s enormous fun, because of its paradoxical premise. Normally when you watch a movie you are so completely immersed in the artificiality of it that you forget the artificiality entirely. The characters – who are obviously movie stars merely playing actual people – are so transparently synthetic that you tend to ignore the unreality of it all. You end up rooting for Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant to win in love precisely because you had already made a deal when you sat down to watch the movie that you would politely ignore the fact that they are really movie stars playing a role. And it’s that contract which makes the whole enterprise function so seamlessly.

“Cloverfield” is quite a different beast. On some level it’s an answer piece to “The Blair Witch Project”, but it comes with none of that earlier film’s ambiguity of provenance. If you saw BWP when it first came out in theatres, you could perhaps convince yourself that it might be real – found footage from a series of actual events.

But “Cloverfield”, while maintaining the same gritty feeling of cinema verite´, tells you at every moment, which each shot, that it is a highly artificial construct, a window into a world that not only never happened, but could not have happened.

For me the effect while watching it was that my consciousness of what was happening was neatly cleaved into two. On one level I was watching a gritty, gripping tale of terrible things happening to people who were oddly affecting in their detailed imperfection (like real people). On the other hand, I was acutely aware at all times, every single moment of the film, that I was watching something as artificlal and laboriously constructed as a Japanese Noh play.

This might very well be a new genre – one attuned to the PoMo sensibilities of users of Facebook and Twitter. When everything is in quotes, the entire audience ends up being invited to become a kind of critic of postmodern cinema.

I wouldn’t want all films to follow in this path, but once in a while there is something very cool and fun about having such an experience of double vision.

On the other hand

Friday, July 10th, 2009

I was walking down Broadway this afternoon in Greenwich Village, watching all of the fascinating people, each in their own little world, their own personal movie within this astonishing and densely packed backdrop. I passed by a young couple kissing passionately in the middle of the sidewalk, oblivious to anyone but each other, then an old man walking slowly, lost in his thoughts, followed by two woman sharing an obviously very funny joke. I felt very pleased just to be here, immersed in this endless panoramic display of lives barely glimpsed. Yes, on the one hand the city is a huge swirling mass of humanity. But on the other hand, each individual within this mass is utterly unique.

Just as I was having this thought, I saw a young woman, probably in her early twenties, standing on the sidewalk and holding in her right hand a cellphone, which she was talking into with great animation. As I got closer I noticed that she was staring right into the window of a liquor store, all the while chatting away amiably. I wondered what she saw through the window, and whether she was describing it to a friend. Then I noticed that a young man was inside the store, at the window, looking in her direction and smiling. In fact, I realized, the two of them were looking right at each other through the glass.

The entire scene seemed rather mysterious. I could tell by the way the young man was dressed that he probably worked in the store. OK, that made sense – he couldn’t leave the store because he was working. But why was he just looking at her through the plate glass while she talked on the phone, and who was she talking to? Then I remembered that some people have “hands free” cellphone headsets – and that would make particular sense for someone working in a store. The young man was probably wearing an unobtrusive headset, and she was most likely talking to him.

By now I had passed the couple by, and the little tableau was already behind me, but I was still trying to puzzle it out. Why would a young woman hold a conversation with her young man over a cellphone while staring at him through a plate glass window, when she could just as easily go in the store and talk to him directly?

Unable to contain my curiosity, I turned to look back, and that’s when I saw the telling little detail that I had missed before – the one detail that explained everything. This is, after all, New York, and there are certain rules, and sometimes those rules require resorting to cellphone conversations through thick plate glass windows. For clearly the young man, being in the middle of work, could not leave the store in the middle of his shift. And yet his young woman friend could not enter the store to talk with him directly, for a simple reason.

In her left hand was a cigarette.

Actual humans

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

I get loads and loads of attempted spam comments on this blog. They come in a steady tide of junk, seemingly from all sort of IP addresses and made-up user names. Of course they get filtered out before you see them, but I can see them when I look in my spam folder. One sad consequence of this situation is that from time to time a reader comments for the first time and I just don’t see it, because their comment has been drowned in a sea of overwhelming spam. I don’t mind the spam itself so much, but I do mind missing the comments of actual fellow humans with something to say.

Another consequence of the flood of spam is that I have no idea how many people are reading this blog. I do get a sense that there must be quite a few, because I keep running into folks around the world who tell me they are readers the first time we meet, and others who tell me that their mom or their aunt reads it regularly. After a while you get a sense of a lot of random connections, some large ungainly graph of human connections of which this blog is a part.

But because of the flood of fake spam “readers” I don’t know how to interpret any available log statistics to figure out the number of actual humans out there. I sometimes wonder whether it would matter to me, in terms of what I choose to write, or how I choose to write, whether the number of readers each day should turn out to average ten or ten thousand. On some important level it shouldn’t matter. If you start writing for an “audience” then the result is at best entertainment, and the entire enterprise is likely to devolve into a pointless game of maintaining high readership numbers.

I rather like this state of affairs, this sense of broadcasting from a lonely cabin in space, with just the occasional reminder that there may be some sort of crowd massed on the other side of my cabin door, waiting for the next interplanetary transmission. This way I can focus all my energies where they should be focused – unto a place that is unknown, and indeed unknowable, to spammers – the place that contains you, the unique and very real person who is reading this right now.

Perfect shoes

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

A number of years ago, at the invitation of the University of Catania in Sicily, I agreed to organize a week long course on computer graphics. I asked a number of my colleagues from various universities to teach on different subjects. College students, both male and female, signed up from all over Europe to attend. The course was held on the charming island of Lipari, one of a chain of eight islands off the northern coast of Sicily.

The town had been lovingly preserved for centuries, and was not much different than it had been eight hundred years before. Narrow cobblestone streets meandered around lovely little old buildings, and the entire village looked out upon the blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

We would spend days teaching courses, and then at night we would drink wine, tell stories, and students would play guitar and sing lovely folk songs, many of which were new to me. It was quite an idyllic week, and I suspect that just out of sight, a few of the students had paired together to personally advance the cause of international affairs.

I even got quite a bit of research done. For example, the first version of the iinteractive face that is on my web site was created that week.

Somewhere around the second day, feeling silly in my city shoes, I went to a local shop and bought a really comfortable pair of casual shoes, the kind the locals wore. The moment I put them on my feet I fell in love with them. I would wander around the cobblestone streets in perfect comfort, feeling as though I were walking on air. After a few days I started to wonder why they didn’t just make all shoes this comfortable.

When the day came to return home, I packed the shoes, eager to have them in my life back home. That first post-Lipari, morning, waking up back in my own bed in Manhattan, I put on my perfect shoes and ventured out into the streets.

And immediately discovered that I could not walk in them. Or rather, that it was impossible to walk in them fast enough not to constantly get jostled and bumped by all the busy New Yorkers around me. And I couldn’t really pick up the pace – if I tried to walk fast, the shoes would pretty much just slip off my feet. I suddenly realized that the entire time I had been in Lipari, I had been walking only about half as fast as I did when I was back in New York.

Sadly, I returned back to my apartment and, with a last wistful look, put the shoes away in my closet. They might be somewhere in that closet still. I lost track of them years ago.


Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Unthinkingly I used a word today that a colleague had never heard of, and that got the two of us talking on the subject of words that are in the language but are rarely used. I said that one of my favorites is “defenestration”, or the act of being thrown out of a window. As an example I gave the scene in the 1995 film “Braveheart”, in which the old king’s response to receiving sound strategic advice from Phillip – his son’s male lover/advisor – is to summarily pick the man up and throw him out the window to his death.

I remember that when I first saw this film, that scene really bothered me; watching it gave me a dreadful, inexplicable sense of deja vu. The murdered man, played by the excellent British actor Stephen Billington, was clearly brilliant, charismatic, fearless, a man who would be an asset in any situation. By killing him, the old king was effectively destroying his own son’s greatest political asset (by the way, none of this is historically accurate – Phillip was in reality killed by rival courtiers after young Edward II had already ascended to the thrown). Although Gibson has publicly said otherwise, you have only to watch the scene to see that the audience is meant to side with the old king. In fact the moment reliably generates a big laugh from audiences.

But I was horrified by the old king’s act. Why would you dispose of the smartest guy in the room, and thereby possibly jeopardize your own kingdom? It’s not like the young prince wasn’t giving his father heirs (in real life, whatever his personal leanings, Edward II fathered at least five children).

It was not until today, during the conversation about defenestration, that I realized the sourc of my deja vu, recalling what other scene it had reminded me of. It was a moment in a film that came out two years earlier – Stephen Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” – when concentration camp prisoners are being put to work assembling barracks. A young Jewish woman engineer – good looking, brilliant, outspoken, rather like Phillip – tells the camp commandant that they are laying the foundations incorrectly, and that the resulting buildings will be unstable. Without a moment’s hesitation the commandant shoots her in the head, killing her instantly, and then nonchalantly orders the guards to follow her advice and rebuild the barracks.

What I realize now is that the two moments are essentially the same. We are presented with a brilliant young person who is clearly exceptional, with a dazzling mind and a superior ability to find solutions. But this young person belongs to the “wrong” group. So the response of the brutal and cynical ruler is to instantly have this person killed, so their continued existence will not offend the order of things. All of the wondrous and original ideas that might have come into the world from such a mind are deemed less important than the need to affirm the status quo.

The difference is that Gibson plays this concept for cheap laughs, whereas Spielberg plays it for heart wrenching tragedy. I wonder now whether I would have seen the essential horror of the defenestration scene in “Braveheart”, had I not already seen “Schindler’s List”. I’d like to think I would have, but there’s no way to know for sure.

In any case, our word of the day seems oddly appropriate. When you begin with mindless prejudice, then the very possibility of seeing others clearly – of appreciating who they truly are and what they might bring to the world – goes out the window.

A glass of water

Monday, July 6th, 2009

When I was about twelve years old somebody told me that if you remember to drink a full glass of water every morning, for about thirty six thousand mornings in a row, you could live to be a hundred. Of course it’s an obvious joke, but even at twelve I understood that it was also a profound joke, maybe the profound joke.

After all, I knew I could count up to thirty thousand, and it wouldn’t take me all that long either. And if I counted every number as a day of my life, by the time I got to thirty thousand I would most likely have run out my own life in numbers. Even at twelve I knew that.

There’s no getting around it – we only have on the order of thirty thousand days or so to live our entire lives. Not a million or a billion, or some comfortably huge number that doesn’t bear thinking about. No, just around thirty times a hundred – not all that many glasses of water at all.

There are two ways to look at this potentially alarming fact. One way is to bemoan the tragedy of it all – to curse the clock upon the wall for its incessant tick-tick-ticking, or to run around the house throwing out all the calendars, with their far too brief inventory of days.

The other way is to think of each day as a rather generous portion of life, a large enough chunk of the total that it would be a shame to waste it. From the moment you rise in the morning until the moment you drift off to sleep that same evening, you are actually engaged in a rather profound act, whether or not you choose to notice. You are living out about one thirty thousandth of your entire life, a fairly significant slice of the pie – the only occasion when you will ever have that particular slice to work with.

On my better days I remember this. On those days I think of that glass of water I was told about at the age of twelve, and I make sure to drink it all down. I figure I might as well savor that water to the fullest, all cool and refreshing and new. On those days I drink in life to the fullest – every last sip.

Arms and the dinosaur

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Wandering around in the American Museum of Natural History today, I was struck how many of the intelligent and well-meaning new exhibits, such as the “Hall of Biodiversity”, sail way over the heads of children. Kids will put up with that kind of stuff, because their parents take them there and seem to think it’s all very important. But of course that’s not why the kids came to the museum.

They came to see the dinosaurs.

Yes, yes, they know there are also prehistoric wooly mammals, stuffed wildebeests, skeletons of extinct fish and dioramas that lovingly recreate the appearance of prehistoric grassy plains. There are minerals that glow in the dark, exotic trees and weird turtles and insects. And there’s nothing wrong with any of these things. But none of them are dinosaurs.

As I started to think about the love affair kids have with dinosaurs, I suddenly found myself thinking about another big museum – one directly across Central Park – the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The placement of these two monuments to civilization directly across from each other could not be mere happenstance. These twin pillars of celebration – of our knowledge of the natural world on the one hand, and our human striving to create a world of artistic expression on the other – are two sides of the same coin. They bracket our belief in ourselves as a civilization that seeks to spiral ever upward in some psychic journey through time.

But more than that, as a civilization that strives to make this upward spiral understandable and accessible to its citizenry – beginning with that citizenry’s children. And that is why museums do something to make themselves kid-friendly, to contain exhibits that invite family outings, no matter how arcane and difficult might be some of their other offerings. And as I thought about this, I started thinking about what, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the equivalent of the dinosaurs. What is the artistic cousin of the might thunder lizard?

The answer, of course, is Arms and Armor. This is the name of one long hall at the Met which is an absolute dream to any little kid who is not quite ready to accept the dreary view of reality held by most grownups. Your children might not give a fig about early American interiors, Rodin’s caryatids, Leonardo’s sketches, or anything at all by Joshua Reynolds, but put an authentic suit of armor on a store-dummy knight riding a statue of a horse, and kids are there. Lances, broadswords, sabers, longbows, crossbows, helmets, breastplates, chain mail, and the like – these are a child’s equivalent of Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops. Even the horses wear cool armor, lovingly made by medieval craftsmen to match the marshal finery of the battling lords who rode them into battle.

Dinosaurs and knights in armor have several things in common. For one thing, they both happened a long time ago, far away from the day-to-day world of parents and teachers, in a time that may as well come from a dream. In addition, they are both larger than life – fearsome, fearless, concerned with raw power and the primal stuff of survival, inhabiting a world where a well placed swipe from powerful spiked tail or the practiced swing of a broadsword can mean the difference between glory and sudden death.

To a child, this is all very cool.

Thinking about it in pure marketing terms, I guess the ultimate kid-friendly museum would somehow combine these powerful totems of childhood veneration. Perhaps some far-seeing soul will eventually put it all together, and we will get the museum that every child secretly wishes for – dinosaurs in armor! While we’re at it, we could throw in the rest of the great child-friendly subjects – pirates and ancient egypt. Sooner or later it’s bound to happen, a museum devoted entirely to the battle for world domination between armored dinosaurs and ancient egyptian mummy pirates on the high seas.

Or maybe it will be dinosaur pirates versus ancient egyptian knights in armor. I really couldn’t say. I suppose to be safe we might as well put it all together and establish a museum that teaches of the mighty adventures of ancient egyptian pirate dinosaur knights in armor.

I’m sure it would be very popular.


Saturday, July 4th, 2009

This evening they set off fireworks over the Hudson river – something that is done here every year on this day to celebrate our nation’s independence. Watching the fireworks this evening over the river, I had a flashback to several years ago, when our nation was first in the thick of newly declared war in Iraq. I remembered that there was a period of time when seeing the fireworks made me uneasy. It’s one thing to show a symbolic display of firepower when you are sure what it all signifies. It’s quite another thing to see America represented through marshal symbolism when your nation is in the midst of a war that seems misbegotten.

I noticed this evening that this feeling of uneasiness had gone. I no longer think of our ship of state as being on a path to perpetual war, but rather as sincerely trying to work toward peaceful resolution of various conflicts around the world.

And now, suddently, fireworks have become beautiful again!

Ghost stories

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

I was having a discussion recently with a friend about the representation of metaphysics in pop culture (not to be confused with the representation of pop culture in metaphysics).

During the course of our conversation my mint turned to the 1990 film “Ghost”, probably because I had just seen Sam Raimi’s “Drag me to Hell”. Speaking of the Raimi film, I am now eagerly awaiting the probable sequel: “Drag me from Hell”. Followed of course by the inevitable third leg of the trilogy: “Drag me back to hell again; Army of Darkmen”.

Sorry. Where was I?

RIght. The metaphysics of “Ghost” is positively weird. The basic idea is that the human race is divided into two groups, in some unspecified proportion. The good people find, upon the moment of their demise, that beautiful music starts to play while they walk up a strangely blurry stairway to become one with the Silhouette People – those fortunate souls who have led good and wholesome lives, and will now have the opportunity to spend all eternity as bad special effects, their ectoplasmic selves forever out of focus because somebody ran out money before shooting that scene.

Of course nobody actually ever gets to see this beautiful transfiguration except Demi Moore, and even then only when she has really really short hair.

The bad people have a rather different fate. They are pulled down, screaming, by dark shadowy figures recently escaped from the Nazi-face-melting scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, to spend their souls in eternal torment in what seems to be a part of the New York City sewage disposal system. Although I can’t be sure because the movie is dark in this scene, so it could actually be the New York City subway system, which makes perfect sense if you’ve ever ridden the IRT local during rush hour.

The curious thing is that there is no hint of a middle ground – it’s either the happy blurry Silhouette People or the shadowy Nazi-face-melting subway fiends. Ever since I first saw this film I’ve wondered what happens to people who are right on the edge, their fate teetering in the balance. Maybe they’ve lived a generally good life, but they cheated on a test or two in high school, or lied to their girlfriend once, or found themselves undercharged in a restaurant and didn’t say anything to the waiter.

Is there some critical mass of sins that tip you over the edge into Hell? What if you ran out of coffee one morning, so you were in a really crabby mood, and that’s why you didn’t pick up the wallet somebody dropped on the street that one time, run after them and give it to them just before they got into that taxi?

You would think there would be some sort of board of appeals, maybe an official form you could fill out, with a “didn’t have coffee that morning” checkbox. That would be the civilized way, wouldn’t it?

But apparently that’s not how things work in the “Ghost” universe. Instead the filmmakers opt for something so over-the-top stupid that you can’t actually suspend your disbelief long enough to really enjoy the erotic pottery scene. So I am left wondering, are we supposed to think the movie’s metaphysical premise is as inane as it seems?

Or perhaps the entire enterprise was a clever ploy by director Jerry Zucker and friends to get people annoyed with religion and its underlying assumptions.

Somehow I doubt it.

Pivot day

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Today it is the pivot day, the middle of the year
Half the days have now gone by, or have yet to appear
On New Years Eve we all go mad, and stay up through the night
Making resolutions up, until dawn’s early light

But on July the second there are none who celebrate
Who stop to think, or share a drink or even stay up late
The day slips by without a thought, as quiet as a tomb
Even though the second half of all the year may loom

Let us take a moment now to pause and give a glance
To all the things we’d like to do, while still there is a chance
Half the year is gone it’s true, yet we are hardly done
So let us celebrate anew – the half year just begun!